A Walk through Rome’s Second Largest Complex – The Baths of Caracalla

Located by ancient Appian Way in Rome, the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla are a popular tourist attraction, the home of the Rome Opera during summer, and a concert venue. Open to the public, the baths are spread across 25 hectares, accommodating 1,600 bathers at a time. Visitors can also view some of the remaining mosaics which bore witness to Romans coming to the baths to improve their hygiene and health, relax, gossip and socialize.

CaracallaWPDocDownsized0087The History of the Baths

Built in Rome between AD 212 and 216, the Baths of Caracalla is the second largest Ancient Roman bathing area after the Baths of Diocletian. While this historical structure is attributed to Emperor Caracalla, it was his father Septimius Severus who commissioned the baths. However, Caracalla continued building this complex for a different reason altogether.

He wanted people to like him and remember him by something impressive, especially after killing his younger, popular brother to secure the throne. Therefore, in addition to being a bathing house, the Baths of Caracalla acted as a multifunctional leisure center. It included a gymnasium and multiple restaurants, art galleries, libraries and even brothels.

The Architecture of the Baths of Caracalla

Like all the bathhouses of Ancient Rome, the Baths of Caracalla are divided into three bathing areas: the, the calidarium, tepidarium, and frigidarium. First, the Romans would bathe in the calidarium (hot pool), before moving on to tepidarium (lukewarm pool) and the frigidarium (cold pool). Finally, they would swim in the natatio, which is an open air swimming pool.

To ensure the hygiene of the facility, the baths’ architects carefully planned the flow of water in and from the hot and cold basins. The 15,000 to 20,000 cubic meters of water necessary were provided by a branch of the Aqua Marcia aqueduct, which brought water from springs over 90 km away near Subiaco’s hills. The water would flow into a large cistern divided into 18 chambers with a capacity of 10,000 cubic meters. The water would then flow beneath the gardens to the main building where a distribution system either carried water to the cold pools or over wood fires for the use of warm and hot baths.

As for drainage, the floor of each room led to the drains which ran below the distribution pipes to direct water to the municipal drain in the valley. However, what truly shows the Romans’ architectural ingenuity is the third network of tunnels where wood was stored to fuel fifty furnaces which heated the water or the rooms.

Above the surface were numerous artwork masterpieces and mosaic floors, most of which have been removed and transported to different museums across the world. Complementing these are the 6,300 meter cube of marble used throughout the baths and the famous Hercules sculpture, which stood tall at 10 ft. 6 in. However, Hercules wasn’t the only famous Greek or Roman hero depicted; an assortment of statues that lined the central axis of the baths have been uncovered. Even frowning busts of Emperor Caracalla are seen all over the place.

Because of their exquisite architecture, the Baths of Caracalla will always gain praise from their visitors. Though the once-mighty building has been reduced to ruins, tourists will get a glimpse into the ancient world of Rome, especially when the baths are lit at night. Summer is especially special at the area since the baths are the background of cultural sets such as the Teatro dell’ Opera. Therefore, visitors should schedule their trips to the Baths of Caracalla accordingly.


Nora Garibotti is a photographer with a particular interest in Roman antiquity & architecture.  More of Nora’s photography can be viewed on her website: Garibotti Photography.

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